The Post-Mao Chinese Left: Navigating the Recent Debates

[Originally posted on and Kasama Project – ed.]

By Zhun Xu

The author is a member of the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

This year saw an unprecedented rise in political fights among the Chinese leftists.

An outside observer might surprisingly discover such big differences on the “left” when all of the major leftist online forums began publishing harsh political polemics from opposing camps. Various issues are discussed, but the practical political stake is whether the left should be a political ally of the current CCP leadership or not, i.e. political program of a united leftist camp. One group, which mostly posts on one of the largest online leftist forum in China (Utopia, or wu you zhi xiang), has been a long supporter of the government and tries to consolidate the leftists under its pro-CCP flag and advocate reforms under current regime to “restore socialism”; while other groups, mostly publishing on relatively smaller online forums, take a different stance and argue that socialism cannot be built under the current capitalist state. The pro-CCP people accused other groups as “extremists”, and their opponents also called them “reactionary and opportunist”.

Who are our friends and who are our enemies? This is the most fundamental question for any political program. There has always been huge difference in the answers to this question among the Chinese left.

Some people argue that although China became largely a capitalist society and the class conflict between the workers and the new rich people including the CCP cadres and compradors, the major contradiction is between the Chinese as a people and “imperialist power” like the US.

Zhang Hongliang, a famous political writer on the internet and professor at Minzu University of China, is often times regarded as the spiritual leader of this camp. In Zhang’s articles, class conflict is always important, but racial conflict is more vital for him. It is unpleasant to find many reactionary ideas in Zhang’s writings, for example, Zhang repeatedly claimed that the Anglo-Saxon people (that is their preferred word to describe imperialists) have the huge genocide plan of killing Chinese people. In his own words: “racial conflict has changed class conflict fundamentally, nowadays class struggle is not about who controls the state anymore, rather it is on whether China is going to be destroyed (by Anglo-Saxon people and its allies). The solution to the danger of “genocide”, according to Zhang Hongliang, is to wholeheartedly embrace the government and defeat both the “imperialists and its allies” and the “left extremists”.

Other people presented the same perspective as Zhang’s. Kong Qingdong, professor at Beijing University, made the claim that those who want to overthrow the current regime by revolution are crazy “fundamentalist Marxists”, and there is no difference between them and imperialists together with their Chinese allies.

Zhang and others’ writings are popular among younger readers, including left-leaning students and nationalists. Although most of them repeatedly claim that they are Maoist communists, they do not really use Marxist analysis. They would like to throw out concepts like “class struggle”, “imperialist” etc, but as we have seen, their real message is a nationalist one, even with some Nazi flavors.

Others in this camp do not necessarily have the same ideas as Zhang or Kong, but they all seem to agree that given the existence of imperialists and their compradors, “save the Party” is more or less identical to “defend our country”. Therefore, they tend to believe that the ruling class in China is ultimately their friend while anyone opposing to the ruling class must be their enemy. In order to reconcile this view with the clear neo-liberal turn in the last three decades, they argue that while it is true that China has been going down a capitalist path, this is only because the anti-Mao faction held power and chose the way of capitalism, as long as the true “socialists” in the Party got power, China could be taking a totally different route!

The other camp had quite different perspectives on the nature of the Chinese society and the major enemy of the left. Although it is still difficult to generalize their politics, they view class conflict between workers and capitalists as the most important issue. Instead of dividing the Party leaders into the pro-socialism faction and pro-capitalism faction, they tend to treat them both as political representatives of the bourgeoisie and they just have different attitudes on how to build capitalism (and their family wealth) safely. Therefore, it does not make sense for Marxists to become allies of the government to fight against “imperialism”. In fact, both the domestic bourgeoisie and the imperialists should be our enemies.

Clearly, the two camps have opposite views on China from the very beginning, but why did they stay at relative peace previously and suddenly began to fight each other? Some historical background and current context should be discussed to help us answer this question.

It would be unimaginable for such a debate to take place in China for most of the recent 30 years. After Mao died in 1976, the communist party leadership quickly cleaned out all the leftists from the central committee and began taking a long but steady transition to capitalism as we can see now. Why the CCP changed its mission is another question which has been discussed elsewhere.

To accompany this transition, the previous revolutionary period was demonized as much as possible and “to be rich is glorious” became the official ideology. The “old” revolution doctrines were considered to become outdated or extremist or even “reactionary” for China’s enlightenment/development.

Plus, in a short period, the unleashed market brought some positive changes to the life of Chinese people while some key elements of socialism were maintained, like nearly full employment. Therefore, the intellectuals as well as many working class people believed the “reform” was the way to go. The major contradiction of China, at that time, was believed to be the pure conflict of the old regime and reform.

Of course, everything changed when the economic reform reached much difficulty in the late 1980s. Huge inflation unprecedented to Socialist China greatly affected people’s life, no need to mention that the increasing income polarization and huge corruption always came hand in hand with marketization. People became more and more suspicious about the ongoing reform and the CCP itself, which, combined with other political factors, led to the nationwide political demonstrations in 1989 which also happened in other Soviet countries. The difference was that in China the movement was soon defeated by the military force. This brought an end to the chaotic 1980s.

Although the 1989 movement itself was due to many negative outcomes of the neo-liberal turn of the CCP, there were no real self-conscious leftists by that time and no Marxist solution was provided. Instead, the vision from the petty bourgeois leaders of the movement was neo-liberal capitalism, not much different from the CCP itself in essence. Indeed, after a short 3-year break, in 1992 CCP began to officially embrace “market economy”, and the shift to capitalism was accelerated greatly. It was from here that political oppositions to the current neo-liberal model began to emerge.

Many Chinese intellectuals referred to the 1980s as their good old time since that was the only decade when most Chinese intellectuals seemed to have a consensus, clearly a right wing one. It was not the case anymore since the 1990s, when some people began to re-evaluate the transition to capitalism and re-appreciate the importance of the socialist period from 1949 to 1979. These people were not alone. The whole society was going through a thorough structural adjustment and workers and peasants bore all the costs. In the urban sector, millions lost their lifetime jobs because of the privatization and the working class began their nationwide struggles since then. These depressed, extremely exploited people still remembered clearly their good days under a socialist society, so they had nothing but socialism as their goal. In the countryside, the tension between peasants and state was palpable because of the stagnant revenue in face of increasing expenses and corrupted, sometimes violent local bureaucracy. The long process of fighting the neo-liberal turn to capitalism gave birth to the post-Mao Chinese left inside workers, peasants and petty bourgeoisie (including intelligentsia). The late goodbye to the “golden” 1980s actually announced a new era of modern China’s political history.

There are, broadly speaking, three most important sources of leftists in today’s China. They share some of their politics, but still differ on a number of ones.

The first group was the veteran of the Chinese Revolution in the last century. Many of them experienced civil war, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and maybe once supported the neo-liberal transition, but gradually began to stand against it. Although they are not part of the ruling class because of their politics, they still have relatively closer relationship with the CCP than others.

The veterans share socialism as their goal although their interpretations might be very different (from Soviet model to more radical versions). They also have complicated attitudes towards the CCP, on the one hand, they dislike the political program of the current regime, on the other hand, it was once a revolutionary party that they joined for the good of the people. So within the group there are divergent opinions, some try to believe that CCP can be steered towards socialism again (if the top leaders change minds, for example), and the rest gradually lean towards the idea that a thorough reform or revolution is needed to build socialism.

The second group came from the intellectual/petty bourgeoisie. They were part of the privileged people in the 1980s when the CCP tried to build a political coalition with them in order to isolate workers and peasants. However, with the good 1980s gone, petty bourgeoisie’s political weight decreased gradually because the CCP has already defeated the workers and peasants. The deepening of marketization and privatization has made them the new victims.

The intellectual/petty bourgeoisie group does not have a general political goal; often times their politics is a combination of several distinct elements, including the “new left” tradition from the west, nationalist sentiment and some parts of the Chinese revolutionary tradition from the Mao era. Radicalized ones tend to work with workers and other leftists to build future revolutionary path to socialism, while more liberal people prefer some sort of social democracy/regulated capitalism and put their hope in the peaceful changes from above.

The last group has its roots in workers, including the ones who had experiences under socialist period and the ones who became workers in more recent time. Workers have a natural tendency to be hostile to capitalism, in particular, the Chinese workers suffered greatly during the transition to capitalism; but they as a class did not become conscious until the nationwide layoff in the 1990s. The older generation saw the huge contrast between the Mao era and the current era, so they had very strong will to rebuild socialism in China; the younger generation only has experiences under capitalism, and generally they were not as politically sophisticated and organized as the older ones, but the severe exploitation by the new capitalist class make them resent the current regime.

In general, the workers, especially the old generation, are the most revolutionary ones in that they have nothing to lose in abolishing the current regime. Unlike the other two groups, they do not have any more hope in the ruling class as they have been hopelessly waiting for a “left turn” in recent two decades.

Therefore, the post-Mao left gradually formed two major camps as we have introduced at the beginning, differing on the nature of the CCP and means to achieve a better society. The radicalized parts of veterans and petty bourgeoisie joined the workers on overthrowing the current regime and constructing socialism (but not rejecting possible progressive reforms), while the more conservative parts of them gather around the goal of progressive reform (and exclusively reforms) under the current regime. The conflict has been there for a long while, but since the post-Mao left is relatively young and weak in various aspects and the dominant right-wing has been always very hostile towards any dissent, the two camps mostly worked together on the issues they share the same opinions, for example, they both oppose neo-liberalism and imperialism. Moreover, Mao is the flag held by all camps. As a side-note, although Mao has been demonized for so many years, his reputation remains extremely high among people, and increasingly so. In my experience, it is very rare nowadays to find an active Chinese leftist who is not a self-claimed Maoist, although the term “Maoist” might refer to different meanings.

This harmony between the “reform” camp and “revolution” camp could be maintained solely on the basis that the power of the left wing remains weak and the ruling class kept playing hardball with working class people. However, in recent years, the situation dramatically changed. First, a new wave of labor movement together with the world economic crisis greatly terrified the capitalists and the cadres, who are forced to begin changing their strategies to maintain order. The growing mass actions against the local government also manifest Chinese people’s huge resentment towards the current capitalist regime.

Second, as the contradiction of neo-liberalism unravels, lots of former middle or right-wing white collar/petty bourgeoisie people began joining the left wing. This significantly increases the impact of the left.

Not surprisingly, there arise politicians who deliberately behave more “left” than others. The most notable example is Bo Xilai, son of one of the former leaders of the CCP and currently the party leader of Chongqing Municipality, who started the huge campaign called “Praise Red & Destroy Black (chang hong da hei)” in recent years. The essence of the campaign is to destroy the gangs and maintain a good social order (destroy black) and educate people with so-called “red songs/books” which includes both revolutionary legacies and other purely old songs (praise red).

Bo, a charismatic cadre, likes to quote from Mao in his speeches and talk with passion and candidness like a revolutionary leader in those good old days. His programs and talks are well received among people and it is not very unrealistic to assume that he could easily win a national election if there is one. As a matter of fact, Bo’s program is a clearly capitalist one; there is nothing changed in the economic model, they embrace sweatshops and big capital just like other places do. The improvements like providing low-rent public housing and a safer society are pretty limited. Bo is definitely not building socialism (besides his lip service), although a good number of leftists try to convince themselves that he is the one (or one of the ones).

All these new factors contribute to the end of the harmony. Lots of signs suggest that left wing now has more say in the politics and even some of the high level cadres began to send a “leftist” message to people. This inevitably reinforces the confidence of “reform” camp in restoring socialism via the CCP as if the party is a neutral vehicle which can be turning left or right depending on the leaders. They began praising Bo Xilai and others as true socialist leaders who inherit the legacy of Mao and follow the revolutionary tradition. However, the other camp points out that the “left turn” is both very limited in its scope and opportunistic in its practice, and they find it unacceptable to be a political instrument of the ruling class. Thus it is only a matter of time for the fights between the two camps to start.

Based on this context, the internal struggles among the Chinese left are nothing but the natural results of the development of the left and the decline of the neo-liberalism. Its implications are twofold. First, it implies the leftist impact in China has reached a new high level due to the people’s continuing struggles against capitalism, and even part of the ruling class begin to “turn left” on purpose. Second, the left wing is now facing a historical moment; if the “reform” camp wins, the Chinese left wing will become a political partner of the CCP and cease to be a revolutionary force; but if the “revolution” camp successfully radicalizes the left wing, then the Chinese left should be able to play an important role in binging an end to neo-liberalism and capitalism in general in China and the world.

Some factors are likely to have significant impacts on the “choice”. First, is a Chinese version of welfare state possible in the near future? In other words, is the Chinese bourgeoisie willing and able to give up some of their privileges and redistribute part of their profits and rents to the working class? Second, is the Chinese left able to figure out new ways to mobilize and organize the mass as the early CCP cadres successfully did 80 years ago? My answers to these two questions are no and yes, but of course only time and practice can tell the results.

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